California's Water: A Vanishing Resource
Interior secretary backs safeguards - Environmental laws to remain in place amid crisis
By Michael Gardner
April 16, 2009
SACRAMENTO – Interior Secretary Ken Salazar yesterday dismissed pleas for President Barack Obama to suspend environmental protection laws that critics say have made the drought dramatically worse for farms and cities.
Salazar also refused to endorse additional reservoirs or a new north-to-south delivery canal – two contentious issues that have contributed to gridlock over water development.
The interior secretary came to California to announce $260 million in federal stimulus funds for water projects mostly centered in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. The goal is to help the state cope with a punishing dry spell and create jobs in depressed farm communities.
Salazar, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, also joined Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on a helicopter tour of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta – the hub of California's water system – which is on the verge of collapse.
Afterward, Salazar pledged to work with state officials to develop a uniform approach to solving California's difficult water issues, particularly how to restore the delta.
Legal actions to protect fish have diverted as much as 40 percent of the water that would normally flow through the delta to agriculture and cities in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. As a result, farms are fallow and laborers idle.
That has prompted some Republicans to urge the president to convene a rarely used panel of administration officials – widely dubbed the "God Squad" – that has authority to override the Endangered Species Act and allow water to flow more freely.
"Without question, we have been devastated," Senate Minority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth said in a letter asking for the administration to intervene. Hollingsworth, R-Temecula, represents part of San Diego's North County.
Responding to a question, Salazar yesterday said that setting aside safeguards would just be a "temporary fix."
"That is not a solution here," he said. "The solution we are looking for has to be comprehensive in nature."
Salazar said he sympathizes with farmworkers, hundreds of whom are on a four-day march across the dusty Central Valley to draw attention to their plight. He added that renowned farm-labor activist Cesar Chavez "was a friend of mine."
"I feel in my heart very much for those people who are being affected, the members of the United Farm Workers of America ... I know the kind of suffering that they are currently undergoing," Salazar said. "Our hope is some of the money we have made available today will help."
The $260 million for California will include funding for numerous projects, such as $2.5 million for fish and wildlife habitat programs for 8,100 acres along the Colorado River. The Colorado River project will help California, Nevada and Arizona comply with environmental obligations associated with tapping the river for water and hydropower.
The projects also include improving fish populations along the Sacramento River, creating a large water bank so farmers in desperate straits can buy water, and drilling wells.
Salazar also unveiled a separate, nationwide, $135 million grant program for water recycling and conservation, much of which could be available to California.